PITTSBURGH – The NFL is on pace for its biggest season offensively in league history. The Pittsburgh Steelers must be wondering when they're going to start getting caught up in all of it.
The Steelers (10-3) are in position to claim a first-round playoff bye if they win out and go 13-3. With Troy Polamalu again making the game-altering defensive plays the Steelers were missing when he was hurt a year ago, they've allowed no more than 16 points while winning their last four games.
That defense not only is playing as well as any in the league, it's outperforming the Steelers' offense — on offense.
Since the first quarter of a 19-16 overtime victory at Buffalo on Nov. 28, the Steelers' offense has scored one touchdown in 11 quarters and an overtime period. That score, a Ben Roethlisberger touchdown pass to Issac Redman in Baltimore, was directly created by a Polamalu forced fumble that gave the Steelers the ball at the Ravens' 9 in the closing minutes of a 13-10 win on Dec. 5.
The only two touchdowns the Steelers scored in beating Cincinnati 23-7 on Sunday came on interception returns by Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley. The offense was limited to three Shaun Suisham field goals despite holding a nine-minute advantage in time of possession and a 354-190 edge in yardage.
The Steelers won the Super Bowl two seasons ago with a superior defense and an average offense. But in this Year of the Yard, the Steelers realize they can't keep operating this inefficiently on offense, especially if they eventually must go on the road during the playoffs.
Two of their last three games have been against teams, the Bills (3-10) and Bengals (2-11), that are among the league's worst, yet the offense accounted for only one touchdown in those two games. Sunday's opponent — the Jets (9-4) — figures to be considerably tougher despite losing its last two games.
"We just weren't scoring touchdowns," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "We were getting down there. We just have to finish drives. That's our biggest problem. We don't really ever have a problem moving the ball. It's just finishing drives."
Maybe it's not a worry now, but perhaps it could become one in January. Running back Rashard Mendenhall has three 100-yard games, but only one in 10 games. And the Steelers are sixth in the league with 803 penalty yards, 440 in the last four games alone.
Through Sunday's games, the NFL is on pace for the highest averages in league history for total yards per game (676.5), net passing yards per game (448.1) and touchdown passes (a projected 750). The Steelers, so far, are nowhere close to establishing any such high marks, with the offense ranking as the franchise's 13th best since 1970 and the passing game ranking as the seventh best.
While the Steelers played their first four games without the suspended Ben Roethlisberger, their offense is laboring at the same time they are finishing up one of their easiest closing stretches. Five of their final seven games are against losing-record teams, and four of their final six are against opponents that have won five or fewer games.
"I don't think they did a bad job (against Cincinnati)," linebacker James Farrior said of the offense. "They did a good job of controlling the ball. We just made a couple of big plays to help them out. That's the sign of a good team. When the other guy is down, you have to help him out."
One of the Steelers' concerns is that Roethlisberger, who has a history of concussions, keeps taking shots to the head without their opponents getting penalized.
A week after Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata was fined $15,000 for a not-penalized hit that broke Roethlisberger's nose, the quarterback took shots to the head from the Bengals' Michael Johnson and Roy L. Williams. Johnson appeared to grab the quarterback's face mask.
"I got the same response that I got last week (in Baltimore)," Roethlisberger said, "that he was just trying to tackle you,"
The Steelers worry that if defensive players believe they can rough up the tough-to-bring down Roethlisberger without penalty, he could absorb a hit that puts him out of an important game.
"We don't play like that," Farrior said. "That's kind of dirty. But we see the hits that Ben takes every week. It's kind of ridiculous that they always miss those calls but, any time we breathe on a quarterback, they always seem to find that one."